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Who Is An OBC In India?

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By Nilanshu Kumar:

The criteria for determining Other Backward Classes has been a matter of debate since India adopted its Constitution. Recently, in March 2015, Supreme Court of India said that caste could not be the sole factor for determining backwardness. Other factors should also be taken into consideration. But what are those other factors?

Article 15 of the Constitution of India states, “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” Article 15(4) states, “Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. It says that the State will not discriminate people on the basis of above mentioned criteria but can make special provisions anytime for the betterment of backward classes. This provision doesn’t just include reservation. It could be anything the government decides. Article 15 (5) states, “Nothing in this article or in sub-clause (g) of clause (1) of article 19 shall prevent the State from making any special provision by law, for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes in so far as such special provisions relate to their admission to educational institutions including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided by the  State, other than the minority educational institutions referred to in clause. Now, in both clauses, the term ‘socially and educationally backward class’ have been used.

Who constitutes of the backward class? Constitution of India has not mentioned the criteria for determining which community belongs to the backward class. In the Chitralekha v Mysore case, the Supreme Court said that although caste is a criteria, other factors could be utilised for determining backwardness as well.

The Constitution of India has not laid down any factor for determining backwardness. In Article 340 it is clearly mentioned that the President can anytime call for a committee for determining the criteria for backwardness and that committee will have to submit its report and recommendations for improving the condition of people who are backward. In 1953, for the first time, then President of India Rajendra Prasad had appointed a commission called the Kalelkar Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar. The Commission had submitted its report in 1955. According to the report, there were a total of 2399 backward castes in India and out of that, 837 were the most backward.

Some of its recommendations were:

1. Women as a whole should be treated as a backward class.
2. As there were no caste based census after 1931 they suggested for the caste enumeration of the population in the census of 1961.
3. There should be 70% reservation for OBCs in all technical and professional institutions.

The Commission considered caste to be the main factor for determining backwardness. As the government was not satisfied with this recommendation, it rejected this report and recommendation.

The Mandal Commission was set up in 1979 and B.P Mandal was appointed as its chairman. The Commission gave its report in 1980.

Some terms of reference for the Commission were:

1. To identify the backward classes based on social, economic and educational indicators.
2. To recommend the steps to be taken for their advancement.

The Commission made two sets of questionnaires for the state governments, union territories and for the ministries and departments of the central government. An experts’ panel under the chairmanship of veteran sociologist M.N Srinivas was formed. A socio-educational field survey was conducted by the panel.

To determine the criteria for social and educational backwardness, the committee had adopted 11 criteria which were divided under three headings: social, educational and economical. Under educational, it was stated, that a caste or class will be called as backward when:

1. Castes/classes where the number of children in the age group of 5–15 years who never attended school is at least 25 per cent above the state average.
2. Castes/classes where the rate of student drop-out in the age group of 5–15 years is at least 25 percent above the state average.
3. Castes/classes amongst whom the proportion of matriculates is at least 25 per cent below the state average.

They came to the conclusion that there were 3743 caste groups which were socially and educationally backward and 52% of the population was backward. They used the 1931 census data to determine the number of castes which were backward. Some of the recommendation of this committee were :-

1. 27% reservation for backward classes in all educational, technical, scientific institutions and government services.
2. Age relaxations for the backward classes as it was for the SC and ST communities.

Students from the General category thought that their future was doomed and they came out to protest on the streets after this recommendation. Some students even went to the extent of self-immolating themselves. Yet, the recommendation of having 27% reservation was adopted.

Let’s look at some of the drawbacks of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. It adopted entirely different criteria for determining backward class in government employment. An employee will be called backward for identification of OBCs in government job if neither his father no grandfather have studied till primary level. If we match the criteria for education with the criterion mentioned above, there seems to be a paradox. Both are entirely different. In the criteria of education it’s about the education of the individual but in employment the focus is on the educational qualification of the father and grandfather.

The meaning of the term ‘backward class’ has constantly been changing since India got its independence. The meaning it conveyed in pre-independent India and its meaning today is entirely different. Backward class first got its technical meaning in Mysore in 1921. It was said that anyone who was not a Brahmin was backward.

Even though there is no accepted definition of a backward class, the term was used in the Constitution. Every government has its own criteria and because of not having a defined criteria for backwardness, castes which are comparatively well-off in society, such as the Patidars and Jats are fighting for reservation. The State will have to define the factor for determining the backwardness to avoid such kinds of protests.

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Image source: The India Today Group/ Getty Images
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